“I’m the guy who wanted him to come as a walk-on,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams in the CBS postgame interview following the Tar Heels’ stunning 75–73 win over Kentucky on Sunday. “So how dumb am I?” Williams was, of course, referring to Luke Maye, the unheralded power forward out of Huntersville, North Carolina — just barely within the margins of ESPN’s Top 100 recruits of 2015 — who has emerged as the ascendant hero of the Tar Heels’ Final Four run.
After an absurd, off-balance 3-pointer by Malik Monk over two Carolina defenders that tied the game at 73 with 7.2 seconds remaining, Williams relinquished control, and let fate (and, terrifyingly for UNC fans, Theo Pinson) determine the outcome of the game. No timeout.
Pinson, the Heels’ charming über-athlete, had been a major factor in helping both teams to that point — his defense on Kentucky’s superstar tandem of De’Aaron Fox and Monk was as vital as his brainless turnovers were backbreaking. But there he was, with the ball in his hands, gliding from the backcourt to the free throw line. Corralled by Fox and center Derek Willis, Pinson turned his back and delivered a shuffle pass to Maye, who had slowed to a stop at the left elbow as momentum carried all of Kentucky’s defenders just past him. For a second, the sea parted, and that second was all Maye needed to hit the biggest shot of his life. The sophomore with the most defined eyebrows this side of Kyle Chandler had his Kris Jenkins moment. Watch the play again, and let the Friday Night Lights opening theme wash you into bliss.
Maye, who averaged 4.9 points throughout the season, has more than doubled his production in the four tournament games so far, averaging 12.5 since Carolina’s March 17 obliteration of Texas Southern and averaging 16.5 points in the last two games. He was the hero, but it was the team performance that created the opportunities.
Isaiah Hicks was a terror defending the interior; Kennedy Meeks was a vacuum on the boards; Pinson and Justin Jackson had their finest defensive outing against Monk and Fox, two 19-year-olds who have this season posted career highs of 47 and 39 points, respectively. The stars of UNC became glorified role players, sacrificing their individual numbers for the sake of preventing Kentucky’s incendiary talents from exploding.
The goal was neutralization; once that happened, the game was decided by the quality of each team’s supporting cast off the bench. And in the battle of unlikely heroes — the Wildcats’ Isaac Humphries posted a career-high 12 points off the bench, looking like Tim Duncan for a few minutes after having scored two points in his last six games — it was Maye who came out on top.
With the North Carolina win, the Tar Heels will now attend their 20th Final Four, the most in NCAA history. The elders on the team — Meeks, Jackson, Joel Berry II — will have another opportunity to cement their place in Tar Heel lore against Oregon on Saturday. But inside the chassis of a no. 1 seed lies a Cinderella story for Luke Maye — and his performance over the last four games is exactly the kind of momentary brilliance that has always made this tournament great.